I was lucky enough to get involved with a few environmental groups whilst at University. This built on an ethos I learnt from my Dad – that you have to truly nurture the earth. In my first job interview for a hydraulic building services engineer, the guy interviewing me looked at my resume and said, “You look like you’ve got more of an environmental aspiration. Come back next week and I’ll interview you for a different position.” That’s actually how I got into building services. I’d never really heard of it. Now I’m quite specialised in building physics.
I studied mechanical engineering and business. I literally went through all the courses and narrowed it down to the one I wanted to do, rather than knowing what I wanted to do. I love that it challenged me to think broadly on complex problems, and it was a good combination of maths and physics. It was a great course. At the end, there were so many possibilities. I don’t like to be constrained. That still applies to my work now; we need to keep looking to new approaches and keep learning.
My mother passed away when I was really young. The silver lining of that black cloud is that I suddenly had a whole bunch of Aunties buzzing round and they are still incredibly strong role models. I learnt from my Dad though, that if I was going to do something, to do it properly the first time. I think that’s the way I approach my work and one of the reasons I started my own company. I’d done too many projects with low aspirations. Now I get to vet my projects. I don’t take them on unless I’m doing Passivhaus or high performance.
I fell into Passivhaus whilst I was at Umow Lai. I was working on a project on the CUB Grocon site and the adjacent site was a Passivhaus project. It wasn’t even my project but I got really intrigued. So much so, I booked annual leave and went to New Zealand to do a course! I honestly thought my bosses would not be interested in sending a building service engineer to do the course, as it had more of an architectural focus. It’s about designing buildings without the need for complex building services.
Once I went on maternity leave, I was asked by a couple of clients to work on different projects. Charlie was just four months old at the time. My partner had been telling me to go into business for years before that! There was a period where I really questioned whether running a company was for me, and it was super tough, but I now love working for myself. I can see a distinct change in the industry, validating what I’ve worked hard to build in my business. I’d struggle to go back to my old role. I work pretty flexible hours too; I can prioritise what suits me and when. I can say I’m in a meeting, when really I’m at the hairdresser! It doesn’t mean I couldn’t have flexibility at another job but I don’t have to think about it working for myself. It’s easier.
My boy is two. I think that when I went on maternity leave part of me knew I wasn’t going back. I keep pushing my partner to work less, so he can wrest back some sort of work-life balance too. I’m a real bully to him (he’d probably say)! I make him take a fifty-fifty role with pick-ups and drop-offs. I remember when I was first on maternity leave and then picking up work, I’d find myself saying, “Can you babysit this night?” But then I realised, it’s not babysitting, you’re his Dad! I had to check myself.
I used to be involved in a programme where we went out to talk to year ten girls about pursuing science and engineering and just telling our story of why we did what we did at University. You could see them switching off. Some of them were really interested, but I think they were the ones who were going that direction anyway; it was affirming for them. I think year ten is too late; we have a culture where gender stereotypes start way before then. Infuriating stuff, like boys are ‘clever’ or perhaps ‘assertive’ and girls are ‘hard working’ or ‘bossy’. We need to start with our attitudes and how we treat three and four year olds. That sounds extreme but it’s true.
For my partner, it’s been directly suggested that people who go part time aren’t ‘serious’ about their job; that they are choosing to compromise and aren’t committed. Thus, if he ever went part time he wouldn’t get promoted. And this is an employer who prides themselves on being an employer of choice. You can have flexibility… but your career will flatline?
My advice to young men and women would be to speak up more. I had what I now know is a really female trait – I wouldn’t speak up unless I was sure of the answer. I’d second-guess myself. I was chronically shy when I was twenty. University beat that out of me. When I came to Melbourne from Tasmania, I was the only girl in my course of about eighty guys. I didn’t get the most out of University. I think that came down to not actively participating.
I was actually quite looking forward to the possibility of having a girl and being a really gung ho, feminist parent. I am, however, really glad I had a son. There are a lot of stereotyping around little girls and boys. I grew up on a farm, got to be a tomboy and have all the opportunities I wanted. But it still made me angry when I had to peel the potatoes and the boys got to chop firewood! I know with my son, he loves to play in the sand and loves to play with trucks. He’s obsessed with male role models and will immediately hug any man with a beard! A few of my relatives know my stance; one of them gave him a tea set in jest. The joke was on them – he loved it!
Clare is quiet, unassuming and yet wonderfully, strongly opinionated. Sitting upstairs at Goldilocks (after forgetting that terribly slow and clunky elevator one has to take from Swanston St) in the beating February heat, we had a brilliant chat about relationship equality, gender stereotypes and the passion and drive it takes to start a business. It is so interesting when we meet someone working in a niche space. They tend to be particularly passionate and in love with the work they do. And often they have a strong need to make a difference. Clare has carved her own path into a career that she loves. Where she can give back in her way, through projects of high performance and sustainable passive design. We wish Clare all the best for the rest of 2017. And we’ll pop over for a tea party at any time!